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Recession reality bites as France joins global rout

France's Economy Minister Christine Lagarde (REUTERS)


For a while France was able to say it had dodged the worst of the global economic crisis, but now jobs are being slashed across the country, recession is inevitable and social discontentment is rampant.

Last week national champions such as Air France-KLM, Europe's biggest airline, and PSA-Peugeot-Citroen, Europe's second-biggest carmaker, announced massive losses and plans to cut spending and shed thousands of jobs.

The announcements came as the government said France would finally suffer the same fate as most of its neighbours and slump into recession in 2009.

The French economy miraculously managed to expand by 0.1 per cent in the third quarter of 2008 after contracting in the second, thereby narrowly averting recession, defined as two successive quarters of negative growth.

But the latest official data released on Thursday showed that the economy shrank by 1.2 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2008, prompting the government to concede that recession was inevitable this year.

"After having been one of the rare European countries where economic activity increased in the third quarter, France... suffered from the negative effects of the financial crisis," Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said.

She attributed the fourth quarter results to a pronounced fall in company inventories, "a sign of hesitancy in the face of a very uncertain climate", as well as to "a crisis in the auto sector".

Car manufacturing employs one French worker in 10, but the sector has fallen on such hard times that President Nicolas Sarkozy plans to lend PSA Peugeot Citroen and Renault €3 billion (Dh14.3bn) each.

This allegedly protectionist measure – which is being examined by the European Commission to make sure they do not break competition law – came in exchange for a promise not to shut French plants or sack French workers.

Peugeot said Wednesday it had lost €343 million in 2008 – having made €885 million in profit the previous year – and forecast that the European market for new cars would shrink by another 20 per cent in 2009.

There was also bad news from smaller rival Renault a day later when it revealed an operating loss in 2008 and said it would focus on freeing up cash this year to weather even worse market conditions ahead.

Contributions from firms in which the French company has stakes, notably Japan's Nissan, allowed Renault to hold its head above water and turn a profit of €599 million, but that was down 78 per cent on the year.

Almost every day in France brings more reports of factories or companies shutting down or slashing their workforce.

The latest figures, released early February, showed that unemployment soared by 45,800 to 2.11 million in December, following what Lagarde dubbed an unprecedented collapse in industrial output.

The figures bring France's unemployment rate to around eight per cent. The European Commission predicts the rate will hit 9.8 per cent by the end of this year and 10.6 per cent in 2010.

This soaring unemployment brought more than a million strikers out on to the streets in late January to demand government action to raise wages and living standards and to protect jobs.

President Sarkozy, who came to power 21 months ago promising to cut taxes and trim France's public administration, has announced a €26-billion stimulus package.

But his left-wing critics accuse him of shovelling billions into banks and industry while ignoring direct help for consumers.

Union bosses have vowed to keep up the pressure on Sarkozy, whose approval rating has collapsed to its lowest level since he took office.

They are threatening another day of country-wide street protests and major strike action on March 19 if he fails to come up with new measures and review his reform programme when he meets with them next Wednesday.

But the president vowed to continue his reforms, including a pledge to shrink the size of France's public sector by replacing only one in two state employees who retire, and has ruled out a boost to the minimum wage.